What Donald Trump hates more than anything is someone making money from his name without cutting him in for a share of the profits. Roger Stone told me that once and he should know, having spent decades advising Trump. With this in mind, the anti-Trump Republicans of the Lincoln Project made a video perfectly designed to needle Trump and damage his 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale. It shows some of the things Parscale has bought since he joined the campaign back in 2016: a ‘gorgeous’ red Ferrari, a ‘sleek’ black Range Rover, a $2.3 million home in Fort Lauderdale, two more Florida condos worth $1 million each, and a yacht, one seemingly packed with jiggling, bikini clad flesh, though that might be the Lincoln Project’s artistic license. ‘Brad is rich, really rich,’ a woman’s cooing voice says over the video, but, no problem: ‘Brad’s a star, Brad’s worth every dollar.’
With exquisite timing, the video was published a few weeks before President Trump’s disastrous rally in Tulsa. Parscale boasted that there’d been a million requests for tickets (before revising that down to 800,000, then 300,000) but the President ended up speaking to rows of empty seats, 6,000 people in an arena built for 19,000. This was psychologically wounding for Trump on several levels: his need for attention is probably unquenchable but even so he must have been left doubly frustrated by the small gathering in Tulsa, the empty seats mocking him. And for a man so obsessed with crowd size as a measure of virility, this was a public humiliation. Trump is not good at taking the blame or the responsibility for anything so it’s more than a little surprising that Parscale is still hanging on to his job.
Regardless, the Lincoln Project are claiming Parscale’s scalp. The video was produced by Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant. In more than 400 political ads he’s made over the years, this was his first targeting a campaign manager. He thinks the Trump campaign is too cautious about appearances to ‘publicly nuke’ Parscale but ‘everybody in DC knows that he’s no longer the power center’. Instead, he believes, Parscale’s deputy, Bill Stepien, has taken over many of his duties and Trump is turning for advice to an old face from 2016, Jason Miller. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, and even Steve Bannon, his third, are ‘circling’.
Wilson says that much of the Lincoln Project’s advertising budget is aimed directly and personally at Trump, half a dozen ads produced ‘just to fuck with Donald Trump’s head’. They call this their ‘audience of one’ strategy. ‘It works over and over…We got the keys to the missile silo, with his brain, and he can’t stop himself when we poke him with these ads.’ The Lincoln Project’s claim to have manipulated Trump into ‘blowing up his key guy’ may be exaggerated — Parscale blew himself up with his tweets before the Tulsa meeting. But Wilson twisted the knife with another ad perfectly judged to play on Trump’s tortured psyche. A woman’s voice speaks, tauntingly, over pictures of the Tulsa crowd: ‘You’ve probably heard this before, but it was smaller than we expected. It sure wasn’t as big as you promised.’ Wilson is proud that this is ‘the first time in the history of presidential politics that an ad with a dick joke has been made’. His sources in the White House tell him that when Trump saw it, he had a tantrum, stalking the West Wing and ranting. ‘I want them all destroyed! I want them all destroyed!’
— The Lincoln Project (@ProjectLincoln) June 21, 2020
The Trump campaign wouldn’t accept any of this, of course. On Brad Parscale, the communications director, Tim Murtaugh, gave The Spectator a statement saying that people had been predicting Parscale’s demise ‘every week for two years’ and they’d always been wrong. ‘Brad has built an excellent team and is doing a great job. He has a strong, 10-year relationship with the President and the entire Trump family.’ In the official history of the Trump campaign, Parscale was the social media genius who realized that Facebook could make the crucial difference in the 2016 election. He spoke about that campaign to 60 Minutes on CBS in 2017 in an interview that was something of victory lap: ‘I understood early that Facebook was how Donald Trump was going to win. Twitter is how he talked to the people. Facebook was going to be how he won.’
How did Parscale do it? The problem for political advertising, or any advertising, on Facebook is getting people to click on the link and not scroll by. This is why fake news, with its exaggerated claims designed to hook readers, spreads so much faster than real news, with its boring facts. Parscale and his team had a head start because they were working with Trump’s hyperactive Twitter account, which spewed out sensationalist stories faster than the news cycle could keep up. A little-known fact: Trump does not write all of his tweets (though you can be sure the 4 a.m. Twitter rants come direct from him). Parscale was one of the few people trusted to tweet from the @realDonaldTrump account during the campaign. He could speak Trump.
Hillary massively outspent Trump in advertising on TV and other old media. The Trump campaign spent much more on Facebook, $44 million to Clinton’s $28 million. And they seemed to have spent smarter. A Facebook internal analysis obtained by Bloomberg said that the Trump campaign ran 5.9 million unique ads, each subtly different, each tweaked to appeal to the person in whose feed they appeared; Clinton ran a mere 66,000 different ads — the Trump campaign came close to that every day. The internal Facebook paper said: ‘Trump’s FB campaigns were more complex than Clinton’s and better leveraged Facebook’s ability to optimize for outcomes.’
Some, perhaps most, of the differences in the Trump campaign’s individually tailored ads were trivial: different fonts or different crops of the same photographs of Trump. Pascale told CBS that there might be thousands of ads identical but for different colors. You’d think that whether the typeface of an ad is in blue or green couldn’t make much of a difference. But the campaign had been given the data by Facebook to know exactly what made a particular individual user more likely to click on a link. (As Jeffrey Hammerbacher, one of Facebook’s founding employees, famously said: ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.’)
The relationship between the Trump campaign and Facebook was so close that Facebook sent staff to embed in Parscale’s digital hub in San Antonio, known as Project Alamo. Incidentally, the scale of Project Alamo’s advertising makes clear that what the Russians did on Facebook wouldn’t have made much of a difference. The Internet Research Bureau — identified by the Mueller inquiry as the Kremlin’s front organization for meddling in the presidential election — spent only $100,000 on Facebook, buying just 3,500 ads. (The effect of Russian hacking and leaking of Democratic party emails is another matter.)
The ‘micro-targeting’ of political ads on Facebook and other social media wasn’t just about colors and fonts but about the tone and content of the messages. I wrote in The Spectator after Trump’s election victory that the campaign claimed to have 4,000–5,000 ‘data points’ on every single adult in the US: anything from age, gender and ethnicity to what magazines people bought, the cars they owned, even the golf clubs they belonged to. This allowed Parscale, as he told CBS, to identify ’15 voters in the Florida panhandle’ who couldn’t be reached by TV, at least not economically. You could address the electorate one at a time: one Facebook ad, or email, to the teacher at No. 22 who cares about jobs, another to the pick-up owner next door who cares about gun rights.
You could also run a brilliantly effective campaign to discourage Clinton supporters from turning out. In their Facebook feeds, black voters saw a South Park-style cartoon showing Clinton delivering her notorious remarks about ridding the streets of ‘super predators’ without conscience or empathy. ‘Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.’ Two reporters from Businessweek were sent to Project Alamo for the last week of the campaign. A ‘senior Trump official’ told them: ‘We have three major voter suppression operations under way. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.’
But all this only works if your data is good. That’s why what happened in Tulsa could change everything. If the news stories are to be believed, Parscale and the campaign were ‘punked’ by thousands of K-pop — Korean pop — fans who responded to a call on TikTok — the latest fashionable social media platform — to register for the event and then not show up. Before the rally, Parscale boasted on Twitter that Tulsa would give them the ‘biggest data haul…of all time by 10x’. There are rumors that the campaign has had to junk all the data it harvested for 10 days either side of the event.
In one way, it doesn’t matter if the campaign gets millions of fake emails and cell numbers: it costs as much to send 100 million emails as 10; you can still reach your supporters even if you’re accidentally messaging people who hate you. But where the digital world meets the real world, it matters a lot. You need to know if real people are going to turn up to your rally; above all, you need to know where to target your scarce resources on election day to Get Out The Vote. As Wilson says: ‘The Trump campaign such as it is, is a data operation. And if it’s not a reliable data operation, it puts them in a fairly grave posture.’
So if this data punking thing catches on, the Trump campaign’s strength could turn into a weakness. But even if the K-pop story is fake news, what happened in Tulsa is still important. The campaign seems to be relying — as it did in 2016 — on a base-only strategy of hardcore Trump supporters coming out to vote for him on Election Day. In 2016, Trump won Oklahoma by 36 points. It hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964. The hundred miles around Tulsa are some of the most reliably Republican territory in one of the reddest states in the country. If you can’t get 19,000 people to come out there, where can you? True, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, but Trump’s supporters have been reliably informed this is all a scare story got up by the Deep State.
With fatal hubris, Parscale has called his data operation ‘the Death Star’. Maybe he still has the data to accurately identify Trump supporters — but what if you push the buttons that worked before and nothing happens? That thought is terrifying to Trump and his campaign as they contemplate election day in November. This will still be a data election — all the experts agree — but the Trump campaign might not have the edge it thought it had.